Across the Haast Pass

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Heading for the hills

The morning dawned bright and relatively clear. Fresh snow had fallen on the mountains overnight and there was a chance the fliers would be able to go up to the glaciers. Unfortunately, the conditions have to be just right and the wind was too strong up there.

However, Linda drove the bus to a place she knew about where the Fox glacier could be clearly seen between the peaks – and the break in the weather meant we could get some clear photos. It was the best we were going to get.

The Fox Glacier

We set off south down the coast to the Haast River where quite a few of us were going to go on a jet boat ride. It’s an enclosed boat going up a wide river and I’d been sorry I hadn’t gone the last time Peter and I were here. In fact, Linda offered us a comparison between this jet boat ride and the Shotover Jet, which is open to the elements and goes through a narrow gorge (you get wet). Haast River is the one you’d send your mother on, Shotover is the one you’d send your mother-in-law on.

All aboard

The sand flies were in great form at the Haast River. Peter can attest to that, before we even got on the boat. I managed to snare the front seat, across the aisle from the driver – which turned out to be a mixed blessing. We zoomed off, picking one then another of the river’s threads.

Jet boats don’t need much water. They can operate in a depth of 30cm(10in). In fact Bill Hamilton invented the engine right here in New Zealand because these rivers are so shallow.

“As a child Hamilton built rafts and canoes for play, to cavort down the flood-prone Opihi River (a tributary of the Waitaki). To his frustration he required the use of his dog, towing a homemade raft trailer, to get back upstream to start again. Finding a practical solution to avoid the trudge upriver would be the impetus for Hamilton’s waterjet design.” [source]

While the river was very shallow, when it rains in the mountains, these rivers can fill their generous banks. We stopped once or twice so the driver could tell us about some of the waterfalls and she showed us a large piece of greenstone found in the river.

The driver asked if we’d like to do some doughnuts and when we agreed, told us to hang on tight. I clutched my camera in one hand and the handrail in front of me with the other. The driver cut the engine and spun the wheel and the boat rotated. One hand, it transpired, wasn’t enough. The force of the spin flung me into the windscreen and I hit my head. Nothing serious, you understand, but enough to give the fellow sitting behind me (Peter) the fright of his life and the driver desperately hoping I wasn’t going to be a headline in the local paper. We did another doughnut, but this time, I clutched my camera between my knees and held on with both hands, while Peter hung on to my lifejacket.

Back on the bus, we started the climb to Haast Pass. We crossed a number of rivers using single lane Bailey bridges. Although it looks temporary, it isn’t. Bridges in these parts are routinely swept away in the latest flood. Bailey bridges are easy to replace and much cheaper than a proper two-lane bridge.

The narrow, two-lane road wound its way upward. On one side the rainforest-covered mountainside crowded close; on the other a sheer drop disappeared into misty darkness. There was water everywhere. Streams and creeks chuckled in the gullies and waterfalls cascaded down the mountain sides. We went past two cracks in the mountain chain, fault lines of the Southern Alps, humorously named Trickle 1 and Trickle 2. Both had raging torrents in their depths. At the top of the pass we crossed a bridge over a glacier-filled torrent which would become the Haast River. That Haast fellow added his name to quite a few things. He wasn’t even the first European to follow the old Māori route, although he did map it.

Trickle 1 (or maybe 2)
Looking down at the Haast River from the bridge

We noticed plenty of evidence of the frequent land slips when the overburdened trees lose their grip on the mountain and tumble down onto the road (which then becomes impassable until it’s cleared). On our previous trip our coach captain told us about a landslide when a couple in a van happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The vehicle was caught in the slip and swept away into the river far below. The smashed van was found but it was three or four days before the woman’s body was discovered. The young man’s remains were not found for seven years.

It’s a dangerous road.

The vegetation changed as soon as the coach reached the other side of the mountains. It was much drier, with swathes of lush farmland. Our lunch stop was at Makarora, a large roadhouse catering for the many tour buses that use the road. It became very popular after the owner built a couple of large toilet blocks. Knowing we would have to fend for ourselves for dinner that night, Peter and I took the chance to buy some sandwiches. It might be good to have a small meal for a change.

Lake Wanaka
Cardrona River

Queenstown was our final destination and soon we were travelling beside Lake Wanaka and then Lake Hawea and the Cardrona River, where the remains of the gold workings are occasionally visible. The high, snow-capped peaks of the Remarkables came into view and we were back in suburbia. Queenstown has been the victim of its own success and now there’s too much traffic and too much development in too small an area.

The hotel is a couple of kilometres on the other sideof town within a short walk of Lake Wakatipu. It’s one of the few hotels in Queenstown where Linda could actually park the coach. Peter and I collected our room keys and made the trek over to the Lakeview apartments. Remember what I said about the two hotels that didn’t have lifts and how we managed to score the rooms at the top of the stairs? The hotel does have lifts – but the lift in the Lakeview building was out of order so we had to use stairs.

Karma’s a bitch. I expect we’d done something wrong somewhere.

We’d been told the restaurant at the hotel wouldn’t be open that night – and we had our sandwiches – but we showed up at the bar for our nightly drink. It seemed that the restaurant was closed for a la carte but they had prepared a buffet, which meant those of our group who didn’t care to go down to the town centre could eat here. There had been a glitch in communication, unfortunate for some. We stuck with our sandwiches which proved to be very nice.

Tomorrow we would have a free day before we caught the TSS Earnslaw for our trip across the lake to Walter Peak Station for dinner. We were looking forward to that.

By the way, if you’ve happened upon this page by accident and you’d like to read more about the tour, go to the tour page where you’ll find the rest of our adventures.

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